Skip to main content

Columbia Business Monthly

Ten at the Top Roundtable Q&A How nonprofit foundations help and shape the Upstate

Dec 23, 2021 12:49PM ● By Donna Isbell Walker

Philanthropy has deep roots in South Carolina, and in the Upstate in particular. The region’s many nonprofit foundations focus on giving back to the community in countless ways, from supporting the arts to helping feed hungry children.

Nonprofit leaders in the region talk about how foundations have evolved and how they see their organizations’ roles in making a difference in the Upstate.

Q. The Upstate is known for being a very philanthropic region. Is there anything specific to which you attribute this spirit of giving?

A. I have witnessed the contribution of philanthropists in the Upstate in my volunteer role as chair of the board of Community Foundation of Greenville and in my professional role as chief of staff at Furman University. It is amazing how the generosity of our region is reflected in performing arts venues, protected landscapes, and the compassionate nonprofits that care for families in crisis. Early in my career I was the executive director of Meals on Wheels and eventually served on its national board of directors. My perspective is that the Upstate has a robust tradition of philanthropy, which attracts new residents who bring their own traditions of civic leadership and charitable giving, thereby continuing to enrich the region.

Liz Seman, board chair

Community Foundation of Greenville

A. We care. And a strong philanthropic spirit has been modeled for us for generations. The Fullerton family’s wealth was generated primarily by the Southern textile industry. While life on the mill hills may not have been idyllic for everyone, there was a strong sense of care for one’s neighbors ingrained in those communities. Textile family foundations represent only a portion of our region’s philanthropic institutions, but their legacy continues to support important work – Spring-Close, Self, Abney, Milliken, Inman, Arkwright, Hamrick, just to name a few.

Chris Steed, executive director

Fullerton Foundation

A. I believe that we live in a region that has a tradition of people helping each other in both prosperous and difficult times. Our founder Walter S. Montgomery Sr. embraced the idea of community philanthropy, where a community comes together to help one another. Mr. Montgomery believed that “Little drops of water make a big pond,” and we in Spartanburg County have been inspired by and benefited from that philanthropic vision.

Troy M. Hanna, president and CEO

The Spartanburg County Foundation

Q. Has the role/mission of the foundation you oversee changed since the foundation was created and if so, in what ways?

A. The Community Foundation of Greenville was established in 1956 when a handful of leaders contributed $5,000 in seed capital. Today our assets exceed $100,000,000, which allows us to invest in a wide variety of areas including the arts and environment. The board and our president, Bob Morris, regularly review and update our strategic plan. Each time, the values of the foundation are affirmed, but we add tactics to facilitate collaboration in high-priority areas. For example, we continue to make grants to long-term partners like Homes of Hope and Habitat for Humanity while exploring how impact investing may accelerate progress toward adding hundreds of affordable homes in Greenville County.

Liz Seman

A. The foundation is better aligned with Greenville Technical College’s strategic initiatives. There are multiple collaborations and communications among foundation staff and the college’s faculty and staff on a daily basis. Focus has been on student support and success that goes beyond scholarships and tuition assistance. Students have many needs, and wraparound services and support have been increased significantly. Examples of student needs include uniforms, books, kits, housing, food, clothing, utilities, car repairs, medical bills, child care, and more.

Ann Wright, vice president for advancement Greenville Tech Foundation

A. Yes. While Greenville’s tremendous growth has been well-documented over the past 20 years, our community is also one of the hardest places in the country to get ahead, especially for Black and Hispanic/Latinx people. Hollingsworth Funds has evolved over the same time from a broad-based community funder to focusing more intently on removing the systemic barriers that hold people back based on race, place, and socioeconomic status, and strengthening the pathways that propel all people forward.

Gage Weekes, president and CEO

Hollingsworth Funds

Q. In what ways can foundations help impact economic disparities that exist in most communities?

A. First, foundations can use data to inform of the economic disparities that exist within the communities they serve. For instance, in Spartanburg County, if an individual is in the lowest economic quintile, that individual currently only has a 4.3 percent opportunity to rise to the top economic quintile. Using data, foundations can begin to utilize all five philanthropic capitals (social, moral, intellectual, reputational, and financial) to create collaborations and partnerships that can provide on-ramps for people in our community to impact the reduction in the economic disparities facing our communities.

Troy M. Hanna

A. One of the key ways to build wealth is homeownership, which is challenging for families living in poverty. The Community Foundation is supporting initiatives that make home ownership more affordable as well as supporting ways to help create additional rental housing units that families can afford. We are also investing significantly in OnTrack Greenville, which is designed to increase high school graduation rates of minority students. This multiyear, multimillion-dollar initiative led by United Way of Greenville County will increase the per capita income of local residents, having an economic impact in the billions of dollars. Other examples along these lines are our financial support of Accelerate Greenville, CommunityWorks Carolina, the African American Male Scholars Initiative at Greenville Technical College, and additional grants to minority-led nonprofits.

Liz Seman

Q. What do you see as a future emphasis for foundations and philanthropic giving?

A. I think foundations will continue to align more of their assets with vision and mission beyond just their grantmaking. This includes using financial capital to make equity investments, loans, and guarantees to complement their grantmaking strategies. It also includes nonfinancial capital such as their relationships with public, private, and nonprofit sector leaders to advocate for policies and practices that support the issues they care about.

Gage Weekes

A. In 2018, the Spartanburg County Foundation reflected with our community on 75 years of impact. While reflecting with the community, the trustees and staff considered what the next 75 years of community philanthropy needed to look like for Spartanburg County, so it is clear to our organization that we must stay mission-focused, while also being current and relevant to the needs of the community. As part of looking to the future of philanthropy, we have introduced the first center for philanthropy in South Carolina, and we know that we must be prepared for the evolutions and disruptions that are taking place in the philanthropic sector. The foundation seeks to center relationships with our fund-holders to address the most pressing needs in our community and to be prepared for the changing demographics that will impact us all. Foundations must be agile and must depend on an emphasis on unrestricted giving and endowment building to address issues facing our communities that are both forecasted and those yet to be known. We only have to look to 2020 to understand this reality.

Troy M. Hanna

Q. How does your foundation use research and data to impact your philanthropic investments?

A. The Spartanburg County Foundation has used research and data to impact our philanthropic investments since 1987, with the formation of the Critical Indicators by then-Trustee John T. Wardlaw. Mr. Wardlaw calculated through data and research the impact of grants offered by the Spartanburg County Foundation on moving the needle on various indicators in the community with an emphasis on the indicator of education in Spartanburg County. From the genesis of the Critical Indicators, a community collaboration was formed in 2004, the Spartanburg Community Indicators Project, that today includes eight funding partners, 15 board members, reviewing seven community indicators in Spartanburg County. We in Spartanburg County have a practiced commitment to our philanthropic investments being led by data-driven grantmaking and solutions, thanks to the early, innovative leadership of John T. Wardlaw.

Troy M. Hanna

Q. How did the pandemic impact the short-term work of your foundation? Do you see making any permanent adjustments because of the pandemic?

A. The pandemic revealed that many more students had needs beyond help with tuition. It allowed us to really see the challenges that our students face, and laid bare how vulnerable they were before the pandemic. Many students already have families to support. They must work in order to support their families and go to school at the same time. Many faced child care issues and unpaid rent, utilities, medical bills, and more. This meant we needed to raise more funds for student emergency needs. We were able to do this without physically meeting with donors, using virtual meetings and phone calls. We conducted virtual lunch-and-learns to inform donors and potential donors. We will definitely continue to use virtual tools to communicate with our donors, much more so than we did before the pandemic, in addition to meeting with them in person.

Ann Wright

A. Covid-19 impacted our work tremendously! Fullerton suspended traditional grantmaking and provided $350,000 in rapid-response funding to support local nonprofit organizations that were the frontline of relief in the first several months of the pandemic. We worked with partners new to us and helped build a statewide philanthropic response to Covid-19 with our friends at S.C. Grantmakers Network, Together SC, and United Way Association of South Carolina. While I anticipate our grantmaking will return more or less to our pre-pandemic priorities, the statewide network remains intact and will likely endure for decades to come.

Chris Steed

A. The Community Foundation Board of Directors immediately responded to support agencies that provide food and housing security as well as access to medical services. We approved a $100,000 grant to the Covid-19 Relief Fund at United Way of Greenville County. Our gift was combined with those of many generous individuals, corporations, and foundations to provide funds to increase the capacity of its 211 service line to respond to calls for emergency assistance and add bilingual operators. We expedited unrestricted grants to meet the challenges of the pandemic while continuing our support of long-term investments in OnTrack and the Greenville Housing Fund. In 2022, we will have the opportunity as a board to assess the effectiveness of our response and determine what changes are merited going forward.

Liz Seman

Q.  Do you consider the role of a foundation to be proactive or reactive in terms of addressing community needs? Please elaborate on your response.

A. The role of The Spartanburg County Foundation, as a community foundation, is to be both reactive and proactive. We use data to inform our direction and are proactive in those areas of persistent need both through proactive and responsive grant cycles, as well as through the grants and philanthropy provided to the community by our donors. There are times, certainly, when we cannot foresee the issues that will be facing our community, like the Feb. 6, 2020, EF1 tornado, or the global pandemic that has had tremendous impact on our community. We did create the Spartanburg County Disaster Relief Fund after the tornado, which was able to provide ongoing relief during the pandemic and beyond for those circumstances when we must react in real time. Last year, 2020, provided the necessary support for why unrestricted funds are critical to organizations in a time of unforeseen circumstances that could not have been anticipated or predicted. So, yes, both proactive and reactive roles for addressing community needs.

Troy M. Hanna

A. Both. Philanthropy will always react to project requests, emergencies, and the changing needs of our region – and well we should! But we must also use our various forms of capital to seek out solutions, build collaboration, and engage in critical advocacy and public policy.

Chris Steed

A. Foundations, especially place-based foundations, must react to the ever-changing needs of their communities, but do so in a proactive way. For example, Hollingsworth Funds reacted quickly to Greenville’s needs during the Covid-19 pandemic, but we did so proactively by working with our community partners to understand the greatest opportunities for impact before making any decisions. This helped us decide to invest in short-term rental assistance and small business support while also advocating for the effective deployment of CARES Act funding through the county.

Gage Weekes

Q. What role can foundations play in addressing racial inequalities? 

A. Foundations can use data to highlight any inequalities that exist in a community, and when you disaggregate data, the community is able to view who is most impacted by those inequalities. I believe that foundations can inform the community of the data and convene the community in a neutral setting for dialogue and action to address the racial inequalities that are apparent from data. Communication and conversations are critical in the communities that we serve, as well as removing politics from the equation and focusing solely on the local data as a moral imperative for our communities to address.  For The Spartanburg County Foundation, this community concern sits at the core of our mission to improve the lives of all Spartanburg County residents.

Troy M. Hanna

A. Support for education for all people of all ages. Education is power. In addition, provide opportunities to experience each other through community forums and the faith-based community. Providing for speakers, community leaders, and others from outside of the Upstate area and South Carolina to discuss best practices and what has worked in other parts of the country.

Ann Wright

A. Start by looking within the foundation. Does foundation leadership reflect the community it serves? Is the foundation using a racial equity lens when making decisions? Who is most affected by the decisions you make, and are they at the table? “Those closest to the problem are closest to the solution.” Foundations should support more nonprofit organizations that are led by and serve people of color. Foundations can have a multiplier effect by sharing research, data, and knowledge about racial inequities in their communities and promoting solutions to eliminate those inequities.

Gage Weekes